CMS finds savings, quality improvement in ACOs

Accountable care organizations (ACOs) save money and provide a higher quality of care for their patients, according to an announcement from CMS. The assessment was made based on the 2015 performance year results for the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) and the Pioneer ACO model, which along with all ACOs, had combined total Medicare program savings of $466 million that year.

ACOs

ACOs are groups of physicians, facilities, and other health care professionals that agree to provide coordinated care to their patients to receive savings. ACOs use financial incentives to change behavior, such as paying more to physicians who coordinate care and use health information technologies. ACOs are judged on the care they provide, measured by various metrics. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) authorized two distinct ACO models.

The Pioneer ACO model, created by section 3021 of the ACA, is designed to support organizations with more experience in offering coordinated, patient-centered care. The program aims to test the payment arrangement of shared savings and shared losses, offering “higher levels of reward and risk than in the Shared Savings Program.” For the Pioneer program, ACOs agree to share their savings and losses with CMS, to a certain amount. Each Pioneer ACO had a minimum savings rate/minimum loss rate—if the gross savings/loss percentage was within that rate, the ACO neither received shared savings nor paid shared losses. If the ACO gained or lost more than their minimum rate, they either received a shared savings payment from CMS or owed CMS a shared loss payment, splitting the remaining amount.

Section 3022 of the ACA authorized the MSSP, which requires ACOs to meet certain quality metrics specified in CMS implementing regulations.

2015 results

In 2015, there were 392 MSSP participants and 12 Pioneer ACOs. They showed significant improvements in the quality of care offered to Medicare beneficiaries, with all 12 Pioneer ACOs improving their quality scores by more than 21 percentage points from 2012 to 2015. MSSP ACOs that reported in both 2014 and 2015 showed improvements on 84 percent of the quality measures reported in both years, and average quality performance improved by more than 15 percent on key preventive care measures. Overall, 125 ACOs qualified for shared savings payments by meeting quality performance standards and their savings threshold.

CMS Acting Commissioner Andy Slavitt commended ACOs for their performance, saying, “The coordinated, physician-led care provided by Accountable Care Organizations resulted in better care for over 7.7 million Medicare beneficiaries while also reducing costs.”

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Highlight on Vermont: New all-payer model grows out of state Medicaid budget crisis

For months, Vermont has been struggling with how to pay for its Medicaid program as reported costs have far outstretched allotted budgets. Instead of reducing benefits for all of the newly insured enrollees in Vermont’s health care programs, Governor Peter Shumlin announced a new payment system entirely, one that he claims will transform its health care system from one that rewards fee-for-service, quantity-driven care to one that rewards quality-based care that focuses on keeping Vermonters healthy.

All payer model. This new all-payer model is described by Shumlin as an agreement between the state and CMS that enables the three main payers of health care in Vermont–Medicaid, Medicare, and commercial insurance—to pay for health care differently than the traditional fee-for-service reimbursement. In an all-payer model, Vermonters will continue to have the same choice of providers as they have today under Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurance. Benefits will not be reduced and by changing the payment structure, Medicare beneficiaries may have access to, and coverage for, new services not currently covered by Medicare.

In Vermont’s proposal, the all-payer model will require commercial insurers and Medicaid to pay the same way Medicare will be paying for health care under its Next Generation program. All involved payers will approach health care payment to accountable care organizations in a common way and all payers will provide doctors and other health care professionals the flexibility they need to lead health care delivery change. Maintaining the same set of rules, standards, and methods of payment across payers will drive efficiencies in the system. The all-payer model builds off current federal and state health care reform efforts that have value-based payment components.

Outlined to the public on January 25, 2016, Shumlin and the Green Mountain Care Board released an outline or term sheet detailing the new all-payer system. The state is focusing on three main health goals: increasing access to primary care, reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases, and addressing the substance abuse crisis. The term sheet lays out plans to curb expenses by setting a 3.5 percent spending target and 4.3 percent spending cap, with a commitment that “Medicare will grow more slowly in Vermont than nationally.” These financial targets, the term sheet notes, are based on health care services in Vermont’s Medicare, commercial, and Medicaid shared savings programs today, mostly hospital and physician services.

“From Day 1, reforming the way doctors and other medical providers are paid has been a priority of my administration,” Gov. Shumlin said. “This is the only way we will curb the rising cost of health care that gobbles up money faster than Vermonters can make it. Today is the beginning of the rubber hitting the road on cost containment. Our success will mean better health outcomes for Vermonters and the end to health care costs rising faster than our economic growth.”

Investments in infrastructure. To curb spending, Vermont is planning to incorporate old and new ways of making health care more affordable. By investing in the state’s current infrastructure, Shumlin plans to expand the Services and Supports at Home (SASH) program, which already has a track record of saving money while keeping seniors in their home and out of hospitals. Another program Vermont intends to continue with is Medicare participation in the Blueprint for Health, Vermont’s nationally recognized initiative transforming primary care, which has also already demonstrated success. The state also proposes to add Medicare participation in the Hub and Spoke opiate addiction treatment program.

The state is currently in the process of finalizing negotiations of the terms of the all-payer model with the federal government. The information and terms released by Vermont do not represent the final state plan.

ACO movement gains steam as more providers, organizations join up

With a number of new providers participating in accountable care organization (ACO) initiatives, this care model is now available in 49 states, plus the District of Columbia. CMS has announced 121 new participants in these programs, which allow providers to offer better quality, coordinated care to reduce costs and burdens on patients. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) emphasized quality and a patient-centered view of care, offering various tools like Medicare ACOs to move the health care system away from traditional fee-for-service payment arrangements.

Types of ACOs

The Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), created by section 3022 of the ACA, allows providers to work together and reduce redundancy in patient care. Instead of being paid more for ordering more tests, providers are rewarded for quality of care and are able to share in the savings generated by the program. On January 1, 2016, 100 new ACOs and 150 renewing ACOs were participating in the MSSP, serving 7.7 beneficiaries. Some MSSP ACOs are participating in the ACO investment model (AIM), which provides pre-paid shared savings. CMS hopes that this model will encourage more ACO formation in underserved areas.

The Pioneer ACO model is for providers already experienced in care coordination, allowing them to shift toward a population-based payment model. This model involves a higher level of risk along with a generally higher level of shared savings than the MSSP. The Next Generation model was born from the prior models and includes strong patient protections and financial incentives for providers.

Goals

HHS announced last January that it intended to move 30 percent of traditional fee-for-service payments to alternative models by 2016. At the time, ACOs had already saved the Medicare program $417 million. CMS noted that those participating in ACOs in 2013 and 2014 also improved on 27 quality measures.